What we looked like when we arrived in Toronto.
What we looked like when we arrived in Beijing.
This train trip had a bit of an inauspicious beginning with the missing bed fiasco, but all has turned out well. Really well.
After we got settled in, a steward came by our cabin and invited us to the observation car for champagne and canapés. Really. Champagne and canapés aboard a train. This, we thought, may actually live up to the hype.
It also prompted us to begin thinking about the differences in service between the Canadian Pacific train and the Trans-Siberian Express. They couldn’t be more stark despite the fact that First Class tickets on the two trains were roughly equivalent in price.
The Canadian dining car – Oh, my god. Crisp, clean tablecloths changed between each service. Fine china. Silverware. A truly delicious selection of meals. Service at your table. “Would you care for anything else, sir?” And daily breakfast, lunch and dinner are included in the price of our First Class tickets.
The Russian dining car – We were expecting finery fit for a czar. What we got instead was formica from my parents’ 1950s kitchen and a matching menu. Not to mention plastic plates and aluminum eating utensils that looked like they had been used to tunnel out of a gulag. And, of course, ZERO meals were included in the price of the tickets.
Canadian food – For dinner tonight, I had roasted duck and Jamie had glazed salmon. Three meals a day and every one a gourmet delight. We may gain five pounds before we reach Toronto.
Russian food – On our first morning I ordered oatmeal. The surly Russian woman who served as cook, waitress and cashier would not allow me to have it because it was reserved for children. I pointed out that there were no children on the train, but she didn’t care. I then tried to order yogurt, but she said that was impossible because it had not been delivered before the train left Moscow. To make matters worse, she looked like Nikita Khrushchev and was even more bellicose.
Canadian service – Incredible. If you want it, they’ll bring it to you. A friendly server passes through the observation car with platters of canapés. Another passes through with your choice of champagne or apple juice. They’re all wearing crisp, clean uniforms and big, broad smiles.
Russian service – The closest the staff came to service when they point to their watches and grunted out a gruff, “Get on train” when it was time to leave a station.
The Canadian cabin – We have a sink with hot and cold running water. A three-way mirror. An in-cabin water closet. Multiple electrical sockets. A bed with a real, 6-inch thick mattress. Soft sheets. Soft, warm, comfortable blankets. A fan.
The Russian cabin – Cramped. No sink. No toilet. No power outlet. Two fold-down beds with about an inch of foam rubber for a mattress. We each got one scratchy blanket. But as a special bonus, the Russians provided a television set that didn’t work.
The Canadian “facilities” – Not only does our cabin have hot and cold running water and a toilet, but a full shower is located right outside our door. Sure, it’s shared between all the guests in our car, but that’s a small enough sacrifice to make in return for being squeaky clean every day.
The Russian “facilities” – Hahahahahahahaha, that’s a good one. Our cabin had no toilet, no hot water, no cold water, and no sink. There was one communal toilet down at the end of our car, but no shower. Let me repeat that in case you didn’t get it the first time: No shower. During the seven nights it took to get from Moscow to Beijing, we were somehow transformed from looking like a prosperous 21st century couple into immigrants at Ellis Island.
Information aboard the Canadian train – First thing we found in our Canadian Pacific cabin: A little map with a bit of information on each stop we’ll be making. As I’m writing this a pleasant female voice just announced that we were pulling off on a siding to allow a freight train to pass and that if we looked out to our right we would see Pyramid Falls. The train even slowed down and crawled past the falls so everyone could take photos.
Information aboard the Russian train – We groused that no information was available aboard the Russian train. How difficult would it have been to print up a little map with a bit of information about each stop? Or each point of interest? There was nothing. Nor were there any announcements except for the names of each station just before our arrival. The train spent hours clanking its way around Lake Baikal, the world’s deepest fresh water lake, but no mention was made of it.
Entertainment aboard the Canadian train – There’s a reason the train has a special car referred to as “the entertainment car”. It’s because they have actual entertainers aboard. Today we had a singer and guitar player who actually weren’t too bad. They also show nightly movies.
Entertainment aboard the Russian train – Sit in your cabin and wait until the next station, where you get to mill around on the platform waiting for the signal to reboard. Or you can stare at the inoperable television in hopes that it will miraculously spring back to life and pick up a signal from some distant Siberian TV station. Good luck with that. Hope you brought an iPad full of books, because seven days and nights is a long time.
The staff aboard the Canadian train – Pleasant. Personable. Helpful. Respectful. Often hilarious. Everything you could ever want.
The staff aboard the Russian train – When the train gets to the Chinese border, the Russian crew is replaced by a Chinese crew, which leaves the Russians with nothing to do for the next two days. Throughout our last night on the train, the Russian crew partied in an empty cabin two doors down from ours. They screamed. They yelled. They laughed at the top of their lungs. They were clearly drunk. And I’m not exaggerating when I say throughout the night. I’m a pretty easy going guy, and I put up with it until two in the morning. Then I put on my pants, walked into that cabin and screamed, “Shut up. Be quiet. Go away.” and I motioned to them to leave. They didn’t. They continued their party with no regard nor consideration for the paying passengers.
Socializing aboard the Canadian train – There are multiple observation cars where sophisticated bon vivants (like us) from around the world chat with each other. This morning I spent an hour talking to the guide of a Smithsonian Institute tour group. Our dining companion at breakfast was a Chinese Phd candidate studying business and engineering at Cambridge (hi, Shin). At lunch (and several other meals) it was a Toronto attorney and his marketing executive wife (hi, Peter and Jane). At dinner it was two young Chinese girls studying business in Vancouver (hi, Ivy and Allison). We also dined a with the Chair of the Business School at the University of Western Australia and his wife, an international business consultant (hi, Dave and Patricia). By the way, guys, please let me know if I got any of your titles or job descriptions wrong.
Socializing aboard the Russian train – As the Russians say, “Nyet” (no). There was no observation car, no activities car, no entertainment car. That means everyone was basically restricted to sitting all day in their cabins or standing in the aisle. We did meet a delightful German couple (Hi, Lars and Denise) with whom we socialized on the platform at every stop and a young Russian couple who took us to lunch at one extended stop. But that was it. Most of the Russian passengers seemed content to sit in their cabins with the doors closed all day every day. (It should be noted that Lars and Denise, our German friends, conceived their son during this trip, so they were apparently more social than most aboard the Russian train.)
We’d barely been on the Canadian Pacific train for 24 hours when we started making plans to come back and do it again.
When we finished the Trans-Siberian train we agreed that it was a once in a lifetime experience. And that wasn’t meant as a compliment.